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New Study Looks at Nontraditional Autism Treatments

Researchers find that vast majority of families who use complementary treatments are selecting those generally considered safe
January 11, 2014


A new study supports earlier findings that many families are using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for their children with autism. In addition, it found that the vast majority of families who use such nontraditional therapies choose approaches generally considered safe.

The report appears today in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Its findings back those of a larger study by the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network published in 2012.

In the new study, researchers from California's MIND Institute found that nearly 40 percent of 453 children with autism, ages 2 to 5, were receiving CAM treatments. The vast majority were using approaches that, while unproven, were considered generally safe by the researchers. These included dietary supplements (25 percent), gluten-free casein-free diets (18 percent) and probiotics (6 percent).

The researchers also found that all of the families using CAM approaches were doing so in addition to – not instead of – proven therapies for autism. In fact, children participating in more than 20 hours of behavioral therapy per week were more likely to receive CAM than were children with less access to therapy.

However, a small but significant minority of the families were using CAM treatments that the researchers classified as invasive, potentially dangerous, or disproven by scientific research. These included chelation therapy (4 percent), injections of vitamin B-12 (4 percent), antifungal drugs (3 percent) and intravenous immunoglobulin, or IVIG (under 1 percent).

“CAM approaches are important treatment options for individuals on the autism spectrum,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. “As with any treatment, our emphasis and expectation must be on having convincing evidence of safety and efficacy.”

To this end, Autism Speaks has funded and continues to fund a number of related studies. They include research on acupressure and acupuncture, fatty acid supplements, B-12 injections and the safety and efficacy of commonly used CAM treatments for autism. Over the last eight years, Autism Speaks has been particularly active in supporting research on melatonin for autism-associated sleep disorders. The positive results of these studies have helped move melatonin into the realm of evidence-based medicine.

“The UC-Davis findings bolster what our AS-ATN researchers found in their study of more than 3,000 children with autism,” adds Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “Since CAM is used so widely, healthcare providers need to ask families about its use. They need to invite an open discussion of risks and benefits.” All treatments can cause side effects, Dr. Wang adds. “This is true whether they come from the health-food store or the pharmacy.  Even with specialized diets, it’s important to ensure that essential nutrients aren’t missing.”

The families participating in the UC-Davis survey were part of the larger Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) study. Autism Speaks has long supported CHARGE and continues to do so with a number of research grants.

Also see "Complementary Treatments for Autism," on the Autism Speaks website.



Dr. Hansen discusses her team’s findings on the use of complementary and alternative medicine among families affected by autism. (Video courtesy University of California Regents)